Monday, 29 August 2011

Field maple leaves with cast shadows

Burgess Field, 26 June 2010.

Shadows are negative in being holes in light (and may as in the self-shadows of the second picture burn holes in positives - here too the negative spaces and the self-shadows are similar in form, or rather inverses). But shadows are also like imprints in casting shapes. Plato in the Republic says of images that they are "in the first place, shadows, and in the second place, reflections in water and in solid, smooth and polished bodies and the like."
Shadows lose more information about the object producing them than reflected light, and in this they are eloquent reminders of the dimness of our perception. Any image is just that, an image, and a shadow. (Plato's Cave.)

Cast shadows are, of course, the Origin of Painting:

It was through his daughter that he
[Butades] made the discovery; who, being deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face, as thrown upon the wall by the light of the lamp. Upon seeing this, her father filled in the outline, by compressing clay upon the surface, and so made a face in relief, which he then hardened by fire along with other articles of pottery.
-- Pliny, Natural History (c. 77-79 CE), Book XXXV.

In the eighteenth century there was both a vogue for silhouettes (so-named along with other cheaply produced objects á la Silhouette in times of austerity under the brief spell of Etienne de Silhouette as
French finance minister in 1759) and for the theme of Dibutades (the Corinthian Maid) in such paintings as David Allan, Origin of Painting (1775), Joseph Wright of Derby, The Corinthian Maid (1782-1784), Joseph-Benoît Suvée, Dibutades, or the Origin of Drawing (1791), and Jean-Baptiste Regnault, The Origin of Painting: Dibutades Tracing the Portrait of a Shepherd (1785).

The role of shadows in the perception of shape, and their relation to light and space, are the subject of Michael Baxandall's Shadows and Enlightenment (Yale University Press, 1995), as well as the problem of how to paint them (for which also see Ernst Gombrich, Shadows: the depiction of cast shadows in Western art, (Yale University Press, 1995).

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Reflecting chamber

Hinksey Stream, 25 June 2010.

Still water here acts as a reflecting chamber, echoing the capture of light within a camera. Light is muted in its dark depths, the surface serves as picture plane, and flares of light hover in indeterminate relation to it. What is above and what below? Things are transformed while being turned around. The surface calls attention to itself in its disturbances and disruptions by floating material, such as white willow leaves, early fallers, caught by twigs stalled in their course downstream, their still airborne kin behind them in reflection.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Flowering Rush and Yellow Water-lily

Flowering Rush (Butomus umbellatus) and Yellow Water-lily or Spatterdock (Nuphar lutea), along Hinksey Stream, 25 June 2010.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Banded Demoiselles

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens), 25 June 2010.

These darting blue males flew in packs criss-crossing bank to bank, at
a place where the slow-moving stream prepares to round a bend. Between dances all would rest, each on its own plant stalk or blade of grass. In a still image they are too much as though pinned in a display case, mitigated in the first by the various aspects of flight in which each of the three damselflies has been caught - lending a sort of Muybridge motion to it, and in the second there is a chiasmus in the two pairs below left and upper right. Just as the half-seen iridescent blur of a passing kingfisher, their flight is conjured in memory by more allusive means, such as Hopkins' line "As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme". Only here damselflies rather than dragonflies (the distinction mainly lying in how they hold themselves when at rest: damselflies fold their wings over their body, dragonflies keep them outstretched; also, dragonflies have larger eyes that touch).

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Two adjacent pairs of telegraph poles

21 June 2010.

Telegraph poles stride across the land in seven-league boots, the wires they carry plunging towards the horizon along perspective lines. They hum and hiss when one approaches too close. Seen out of train windows they can be malevolent:

The door of the compartment was open and I could see the corridor window, where the wires – six thin black wires – were doing their best to slant up, to ascend skywards, despite the lightning blows dealt them by one telegraph pole after another; but just as all six, in a triumphant swoop of pathetic elation, were about to reach the top of the window, a particularly vicious blow would bring them down, as low as they had ever been, and they would have to start all over again.
-- Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 1951

In their geometry of straight(ish) lines – as the crow flies – they represent our idealization of space (Euclidean geometry, perspective). They map out the physical expanse of the land but on the other hand they make possible that near-instantaneous traversal of distance that has been instrumental in causing spatial perplexity. In their vague air of menace, or their uncanny giant reach, or their consorting with the birds, flying or perching, they are agents of that psychical space in which we try to situate ourselves.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Walking past a gate

21 June 2010.

When walking and looking at a fixed point – such as a lone tree in a field – the land appears to rotate around this focal point (an effect more noticeable when gazing out of a train window at a fixed point in the middle distance). Here a gate, which turns around a fixed post, is a surrogate for this rotational sense.
In the first picture the configuration of elements – steel gate, wooden posts, the square formed by two crossbars of an old stile(?), ragged blue plastic on barbed wire – stand together on a horizontal base like a sculptural group. While turning my head to keep looking at the configuration the elements move relative to each other in a mutually dependent way that articulates the space they occupy. In the picture plane there is the flattening of the square to a thin rectangle, the expansion and contraction of the gap between gatepost and fencepost, and the turning of the gate about its corner post (left of post to hidden by post to right of post). Within the sequence of three pictures these shifts can be inspected at a remove from the original movement that produced them. For example, the gatepost and fencepost begin to the right of the picture frame as almost parallel verticals; in the second picture they are enlarged, move toward the centre of the frame and begin to lean toward each other (further, a secondary echo of implied motion and depth is introduced in the receding line of fenceposts diminishing vertically up to the top edge of the frame); and in the third picture the gatepost and fencepost return to their first size and have moved to the centre of the frame, where they lean toward each other a little further.
To the left of the frame the square and post move in counterpoint.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Details of a white wall

13 June 2010.

I had occasion to study carefully a patch of wall in the room I was staying in when I had the 'flu at the beginning of June last year. It lay right up close to my face when I was turned on my left side. The white wall's markings and absence of markings were a ground for my fevered imaginings in and out of sleep. As the fever passed my field of vision broadened and I began to observe the passing hours in the room by the changing light and shapes of shadows cast. The white walls returned to sites of unfocussed attention, planes reflecting light or holding shadows - places to put pictures on, but not to find pictures in.

John Cage said of Rauschenberg's White Paintings series that the panels hung on the walls functioned “like a clock of the room” in the way that they served as recorders and reflectors of patterns of light and shadow over the course of a day. In a sense then the White Paintings are without frames - or rather the frame of looking at them is not formed by the obvious boundaries: it is an enlarged frame that seeps into the environment.
Within a frame a different, imaginative time operates, that too of fever or sleep.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Two grasses in black and white

12 June 2010.

After a severe bout of 'flu which laid me low for almost a fortnight I sought recuperation in the shade of the wooded slopes of Petřín hill, in which theatrical effects of light create small enclosed worlds and strike plants momentarily incandescent. Under trees' bower the sun's movement across the sky brings about mutable lighting, complicated further by the variable apertures arising from the movement above of the tree leaves in breaths of air. Spotlighting against a dark backcloth, such as in the first photograph, arises when the incline of hill aligns itself with sun's rays, long shadows letting in but few shafts of light. Plants reach and twist and turn, responding to rotations in the heavens, circadian rhythms finding echo in the pulsating patches of dappled light. In their growth forms the grasses feel out space with their exploratory limbs, moving with gestures characteristic to species, diurnally animated.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Na Vypichu

Vypich, Bělohorská, 30 May 2010.
On a path crossing from bus stop to tram stop, the clouds in the sky switching from light on dark to dark on light, like a positive to a negative.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Three variations on 6

From a skip container in Charles University Botanical Gardens, 21 May 2010.

Saturday, 13 August 2011


Charles University Botanical Gardens, 21 May 2010.

The corrosive marks here seem like vermicular outgrowths, or undulating marine plant forms, or finger smears cultured in a petrie dish. A long time has passed from cause to effect: a slow-motion development. The cause obscure, independent readings of the effect propose themselves. In this traversal of time there is transformation, just as in photographs there is a development from what is photographed into something else.

Thursday, 11 August 2011


15 May 2010.

Street puddles at their edges record traces of passing by, they are temporary junctures. Return after a while to a puddle and the splashes around its rim speak of different hazards met, other feet, other wheels. Under the circling sun a puddle evaporates, in-creeping, dwindling mirror, to eventually leave no more witness to this passing. Puddles sometimes have alluring depth, sometimes beguiling luminescent surface sheen. The inky puddle here - all that is left of a heavy shower under the heat of the returning sun - reflects an ephemeral fragment of windowed facade

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Found picture

15 May 2010.

Taking a photograph of a "found picture" is a performative action, declaring these to be marks that make a picture. But it is a performative action that is motivated by the potential of fragments to fuse into analogy and refer by likeness: here to the left is a sailing boat - now see the wind and sea spray - what brought about the smudged out bold white line? - and so on. The canvas as field for projections, the start of imaginative flight. (Earlier I quoted Leonardo's famous notebook entry about how looking at walls can arouse the mind to invention.)

Rather than generating one's own marks, it is an appropriation of vestiges of language, diagrams, drawings. This complicates the way such an image is to be viewed, bound as it is with other intention. Framing such an image is subject to both chance (what one finds is not by seeking a particular thing, but by taking what one gets) and personal preoccupations (the memory of other images, the impotent will to make one's own).
There is a reversal in the modi operandi of graffiti itemized by Krauss in the paragraph quoted previously. Suspension of action in favour of representation: taking light imprints from what is already there, as one might rubbings from tree bark, and framing it, remote from the site of the original marks. No incursion of space, no use of another's surface for inscription. Conversion of the traces of a past event into the present tense of the performative, both in my action of declaring this another picture, found by framing, and also in the (imagined) return of the presence of the original mark-maker in trying to reconstruct intention: why were these marks originally made?
The marks are reanimated when torn from context and declared to be something else.

Monday, 8 August 2011


"For graffiti is a medium of marking that has precise, and unmistakable, characteristics. First, it is performative, suspending representation in favor of action: I mark you, I cancel you, I dirty you. Second, it is violent: always an invasion of a space that is not the marker's own, it takes illegitimate advantage of the surface of inscription, violating it, mauling it, scarring it. Third, it converts the present tense of the performative into the past tense of the index: it is the trace of an event, torn away from the presence of the marker."

Cy was here; Cy's up, ArtForum, Rosalind Krauss.

Staré Město, 15 May 2010.

Sunday, 7 August 2011


Along city streets there are many unintended marks or marks unmoored from their intention, marks that are traces of gestures or actions where the nature of the mark made is incidental or secondary. Marks made for one purpose (such as territorial markings) that can be appropriated for another (including purposelessness). There are those marks left underneath posters now ripped away, secondary marks arising from or carriers of primary marks, painted over graffiti or scratched out (here there is the violence done to others' defacements), and the partially rubbed out. What once signified is now erased, eroded or removed, origins now obscured or forgotten. In all this mark-making there is an accumulation of layers, burial under sedimentation and a loss of significance beyond a witness to there having been a past. That which is past inheres in place. The sense in place of it having been passed through.
Upon declaring a frame, the marks act graphically and a new significance may be played out. Some day the traces will have completely disappeared. It is this evanescence that inheres in photographs.

15 May 2010.

Saturday, 6 August 2011


By pairing images there is an impulse to compare. It encourages re-looking and the apprehension of particularity. Pairing can happen within an image in the form of mirror symmetry – reflections off water or mirror or glass, two objects of the same type, twins (when taking the drain-pipes I had in mind Arbus' Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967) - or by the bringing together of two separate images, which may or may not share an overtly common element (and then the pairing becomes a puzzle piquing curiosity, creating a force field of suggestiveness, a surrealist juxtaposition, energy created by their mutual interrogation).
In its record of all details noticed and unnoticed, photography is well suited to teasing out meaning from the juxtaposition of a pair of images simply related to each other by having been taken of the same object or place. This might involve changes in time or lighting (including the hour or season – think of the pear tree in Péter Nádas' Own Death (2006), for example), changes of viewpoint, different framings of the same subject, two parts or details of a whole, returns to sites after time has seen subjective changes as well as objective (changes in how one sees things outside reflecting how there have been changes within oneself). Of particular interest to me is the case of two halves of a symmetric pair of objects, or a twin pair of subjects, each differently marked over time, thereby embedding the trail of the past in its traces on the present state. This raises questions of how and why things worked out differently for the two from their similar starting points: what events occurred to mark this one this way, that one that?

The juxtaposition of images – one and two - could be extrapolated to a sequence – one, two, ..., etc. - and a series of film stills result. (This by the way brings to mind the more complex questions of positioning of images in photomontage that are explored for example by David Hockney. Here I am restricting attention to the linear arrangement of framed images.)
By stopping at two images there is interaction
rather than progression: the pair of images inform each other – movement is to and fro from one to the other, reflection brings about reflection. This creates a pendular, contemplative mode of attention. In a series of three images is embedded the implicit movement of progression, unless there is a pair of strongly related images placed around a third (like in altarpiece triptychs), which also brings about the stasis of mirror symmetry – such a triptych is more a central image and a pair around it than three images in succession.
Mirror symmetry does not always produce stasis – think of mise en abyme, or of Narcissus and the lure of the reflected image, suggestive of another world, through the looking glass.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Nové Město

15 May 2010.

A couple of months ago I was somewhat at a loss upon reaching the point when it became over a year since the photographs were taken that I have been trawling through and selecting to put up here. A photograph which previously could be described as having been taken last May on such-and-such a day now has to be identified by year too. This occasion of the year swallowing its own tail gave me pause to consider what this accumulation of images might mean to the stray visitor. (For me, the convenience of chronology is to help me locate the originals when I want to make a print. The question of grouping and classification of images, and of archiving, is one that I have hitherto ducked out of, but one that exercises me ever more greatly as I watch in despair the haphazard fate of images piled disorderly in a heap by time's linear ordering. The question is of course a notorious one, riffed upon marvellously in Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment.) The ordering of images by date taken obscures the fact that underlying them extend branches of ideas partially formed and developments of themes, and indeed for many of them that they are leaves on such branches is their very raison d'être.

Over the months I have vacillated between objective titles for images, giving place or subject alone, and more suggestive titles alluding to ideas or associations that, for me, infuse the image. The former course favours the viewer's free interpretation, the latter course can provide a starting point or anchor for elaborating a meaning in the image.
Ideas of course are two-a-penny, it is their concrete realization that is elusive. Further, beyond this comes intrinsically material expression, not reducible to ideas in other terms, not admitting translation. Of course most of the time - well yes, all - such attempts at material realization are failures. This goes with the turf. Indeed, most of the images you see here might better be regarded as formal exercises, soundings of the scope of the medium, intermediate. This is not to denigrate them, more to emphasize the long-term nature of developing a language for expression and the means for creativity. (An aspect of my method of selecting images has been to try to choose some picture from each day I took photographs, in this lying a residual sense of taking photographs being like making a diary, a record of days past. It is inevitable that some longeurs result.)

Many of the images refer overtly to problems of depiction and schemata from drawing and painting, to frames and apertures, to reinterpreted fragments, transmutation of marks into signs, reversion of signs into marks, the relation of traces left to marks made, looking into and looking at. Often, framing an image one sees a suggestion of other images seen. (One might say always. Towards the end of Godard's
Eloge de l'Amour the narrator ruminates, “I see a landscape new to me, but it is new to me because I am thinking of another, former landscape that I know, and with which I compare this landscape.”) This remembering is a starting point for one's own seeing.

Emila Medková, Untitled

An anxiety I have overcome is the encounter in other people's work of realizations of ideas that oneself had been gestating, whether this be a possibly superficial coincidence in choice of subject matter or a deeper resonance of concerns. For example, the very day after I had been taking pictures of reticulations in the tarmac on Mostecká near the Charles Bridge in Prague (two of which are here) I walked into the small gallery and shop Ars Pragensis on Malostranské nám. and saw in the small selection of Emila Medková's work showing there the untitled image here of tarmac near/on Charles Bridge. (Here is an introductory Tate Gallery essay on Medková.)
This was the beginning of an appreciative acquaintance with this photographer's work (precipitated further by the delight in seeing in her work so many eroded and marked walls - fields for conjuring images, sites of signs, eroded
language, palimpsests). Further, after longer looking at this image, and relating it to others by Medková, the initial striking coincidence of subject changed into the perception of difference, a perception become more finely attuned to the particularities of personality (like visage or gait unmistakeable once known). Past image-making informs present, and meaning arises from how an image builds on those that have been made already. I later returned to taking images of weather-worn tarmac in Strahov Garden, appropriating these graphic marks as elements of triptychs that might to an imaginative eye conjure remembrances of drawings, perhaps of garden trees, or waves, or...

Returning to my former “anxiety of originality”, it is in such overlaps of interest with other people's work that communication becomes possible and modifications of one's own ideas are produced in the light of such prefigurations. In this way I might, for instance, still discover a differently realized version of themes underlying say Lee Friedlander's Letters from the People under the different conditions of my sensibility and the operations of chance and circumstance.
Much of photography is thinking about photography. For this reason I am always interested in reading words about images, and often it helps me in my responsiveness to other people's work, to understand what leads to certain images - what tributaries they have, which sea they lead towards. So I thought I might try here to articulate some of my own ideas, alongside the images. It is perhaps both appropriate and necessary that these thoughts remain fragmentary, maybe incoherent, probably much nonsense, to be discarded as soon as made, from which to move on. But in this the exercise may serve a purpose.